Stupid Sailor Tricks!
Silly sailing stuff, huh? Well, after graduating from college, I had purchased a 1949 Folkboat that I named ''Diana'' as a near derelict wreck and had spent ten months restoring her to sailing condition. I had replaced the rig, rudder, and keel bolts. I had sistered the frames, replaced some floor timbers and planking, replaced a piece of the stem and the forward face of the cabin. We had wooded the bottom and repainted her inside and out.
As the year 1973 raced to an end, I was paid up through December 31st, and I had decided that I would get the old girl launched in time for the New Year. As it worked out the yard closed down on Christmas Eve and would not open again until January 2. So it was that ''Diana'' was splashed on Christmas Eve.
''Diana'' was a wooden lapstrake boat and the theory with wooden boats that have been out for a long period of time, is that you must let them swell in the water for a week or so before you sail them. Since much of the strength and stiffness of a wooden boat comes from the friction between the planks, this swelling period allows the planks to swell hard against each other.
I spent the week bailing, finishing the rigging, bailing, and working on fabricating a new cockpit, bailing, and constructing a new interior for the boat. I was sleeping aboard. I slept on a slatted grate that I had made as a temporary cabin sole with my foot hanging into the bilge so that the rising water would wake me and I would know to bail before I drown.
But after a week, it was New Years Eve and I had to get the boat out of the yard. During that week that had gone by, the leaking had pretty well stopped. Although I had to move out of the slipway, I had been given permission to tie up for free between an old piling and a bulkhead, on the edge of the boat yard out of the way of everyone. As long as I had to move the boat, I figured I would go out for a sail first.
This was my first sail on the Folkboat and my first sail as the skipper of my own keel boat and only the second time that I had single-handed a boat this big, and the first time I had single-handed at night. I slipped out just as the sun was setting in a classic sky-on-fire Florida sunset, beating east in a light ghosting breeze beneath a Jack-o-lantern sky. I sailed quietly toward a blood red rising moon over the Cut off of the end of Key Biscayne.
Now a Folkboat is a marvelous little boat that can sail herself for days at a time, just trim, aim and off she goes. I sat up on the cabin top, jib sheet in hand; steering away from the wind by tightening the sheet and heading up with an ease of the sheet. These were simpler times and quieter times and I had Biscayne Bay to myself; no running lights to be seen anywhere. ''Diana'' was free of anything that one might call modern. She did not have an engine and so did not have an electrical system or running lights. Being a few inches less than 25 feet on deck, I simply carried a flashlight, which I was prepared to shine on my sails if another boat appeared in the night. The head was simply a ''bucket and chuck it'' system.
To those of you who have spent much time single-handing after dark, you will probably know what I mean, when I say there is nothing quite like the emotional sensation of being alone at night at sea. There is this profound sense of being more alone than you have ever been in your life. There is a sense of tranquility and a sense of speed that is far beyond that felt in the light of day. There''s a sense of self-reliance and a fear that it is only you there to make the right or wrong decisions. The carpet of stars overhead light the sea and their sheer distance makes you seem infinitesimally small, and humbly insignificant.
I sailed for hours in the chill light breezes but around ten or so, I reached the mouth of the cut to the ocean and turned back for home on a nice broad reach on a building breeze. The trip back into the lights of Dinner Key is lost to memory but when I arrived at the harbor I began to sort through my possibilities. It suddenly had occurred to me that I had never brought a boat this big into a dock alone under sail. I sailed back to the mooring area and practiced a couple approaches to the piling. I decided my best bet was to approach a couple boat lengths to leeward on a beam reach and then head up into the wind. I had decided that there was no way that I could be on the helm and still make it forward in time to place a line over the piling. Somehow it made great sense to me to steer in toward the piling using the jibsheet while sitting on the foredeck. If I missed the piling I would fetch up on sand bar just ahead of the piling. Now youth is an amazing thing, you have not learned enough to know what you don''t and may never know. Youth brings a confidence that can only come when you don''t know the consequences of making a really big mistake.
So in my youthful confidence I came roaring in on a beam reach, sitting on the foredeck, jib sheet in hand. At the moment of truth, I freed the jib sheet and Diana pirouetted gracefully up into the wind. I grabbed the clew of the jib and moving it from side to side steering and slowing the boat- coming to a dead stop right next to the piling. Polite as you may, I threw a bight of my dockline over the piling. I stood there, dockline in hand, congratulating myself on a job well done. And I continues to stand there cold and numb, scanning the docks for some sign of life; some witness to my brilliant feat of seamanship. But is sailing no good deed goes unpunished and nature took its turn to take me down a peg or two, hitting Diana with a big puff from the other side of the jib from where I stood on the narrow foredeck. As I went over the side, I dove for the shrouds, grabbing the upper shroud with my forearm slicing it deeply on the Nicropress but keeping me still a grip of boat.
As I hung over the side, legs in the water, I tired to decide whether to let go or pull myself aboard. Remembering a check in my pocket, I pulled myself aboard. My scream as I went over had roused a crowd, who arrived just as I pulled myself from the water. As I lay there on the foredeck, winded and bleeding, soaked and shivering; the sound of firecrackers bursting in the distant darkness and a chorus of Auld Lang Sine from the drunks in local juke joint wafted out to tell me that I had entered into a New Year a bit more humbled than I''d left the last one.